Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
While photo shoots always capture his intense stare, in person Conor Oberst—best known by the moniker Bright Eyes—is slight and courteous; he buys every round and only starts cursing when we talk politics. We meet at a nameless Irish pub in New York's East Village. Designated only by a Guinness marquee, the cozy, dimly lit room is complemented by John Coltrane's tenor on the stereo. It's one of those meeting places that finds life in the city, even on Mondays. The middle of the room is hosting a birthday party, with a buffet we're invited to share, and later, we have to move our interview out of the back room to accommodate a poetry reading. Oberst's own posse—which he rejoins after we finish—has already settled in at a nearby table.
For years, Oberst and the record label he helped found, Saddle Creek, have been intertwined with Omaha, but he's since moved to New York. He explains that after visiting on tour he began frequenting the city and ultimately got his own place. His house, family and friends are back in Omaha, but "it felt good to wipe the slate clean, you know, be somewhere where you didn't really necessarily have too much of a history." And he made sure to set up a base before he settled. "At the same time as wanting to start fresh, I also don't like being alone," he says of his new East Coast friends. "So it made sense to come here because there were already a lot of people I knew—and musicians to play with."
You can hear elements of his new home on the pair of albums Oberst released in January. The discs are pretty much split rural/urban: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning displays an even more rustic Americana than Bright Eyes' earlier efforts, while Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is filled with beats and rhythms influenced by the indietronica of bands like The Postal Service. But both albums include songs Oberst wrote about the city, and they both tap his new friends. Nick Zinner—Yeah Yeah Yeah's guitar experimentalist and poster-child for Williamsburg hipsters—plays on Digital Ash, while I'm Wide Awake features the acoustic guitar of Norah Jones-hit-writer Jesse Harris.
Oberst has embraced a new professionalism, climbing deeper into the music industry's embrace. During his recent sessions, he took a Nashville detour to add the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. And, as part of the politically charged Vote for Change tour, he opened for R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen, playing to some of the biggest crowds of his life. And last November, the first two singles from his new albums made a surprising dash to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Though he's reined in his voice over the years, you can still hear the dramatic, sometimes shocking emotion that erupts from Oberst's songs. You could call it angst, or file it in the "emo" genre—the much-abused branch of punk defined as "music where boys can cry." His murmurs begin like melted wax on wood, but when the mood strikes, he doesn't wait for the band—if grunge had emotive tenors who wailed as much as their electric guitars, Oberst leaves his musicians way behind. The vibrato in his shrieks almost smokes; the ballads crumple like rain-soaked leaves. It can be overwhelming.
Once you're familiar with it, Oberst's voice is instantly recognizable—unless you're listening to one of his early recordings with Commander Venus. At first it seems the engineer had the tape running too fast when the track was cut. But then you realize: Oberst was so young, his voice hadn't yet changed.
He began performing at age 13, playing folk clubs around Omaha while committing his new songs to cassette. But it was natural for Oberst, since he came from a musical family. His father—by day a manager at Mutual of Omaha—played in classic rock cover bands, and his older brothers exposed him to R.E.M. and The Smiths. (His brother Matt's band Sorry for Dresden is also on Saddle Creek.) The boys had a comfortable upbringing. "I feel like we're all pretty well-adjusted in a sense," says Oberst, "but you know, [also] kind of troublemakers. I'm sure we gave our parents some gray hairs."
His freshman year in high school, Oberst formed Commander Venus with Tim Kasher of Cursive, The Faint's Matt Bowen, and Robb Nansel, who now runs Saddle Creek. While the band connects some of the biggest acts to come out of Omaha, its original cassettes reveal frenetic, overwrought punk music, with Oberst screaming like a gut-shot Geddy Lee.
The band also gave Oberst his first exposure to the music business, when the band's original label—the Omaha-friendly Grass Records—was purchased by Wind Up Records, which would later spawn arena rockers Creed and Evanescence. By Oberst's account, Wind Up had no idea how to manage an underground band. They spent an incredible $15,000 to record Commander Venus' second album, sent the band on tour and essentially gave them license to run wild. In a 1998 interview he mocked, "It became this joke of how much money we could pilfer from this record label."
Eventually Commander Venus ran its course, as the other members quit and Oberst grew tired of its emo reputation. "[Conor] was recording a bunch of stuff at home on 4-track," recalls Nansel, "and he would just make us tapes. This was all going on as Commander Venus was dissolving, and we all just kind of grew attached to those tapes. It was like, 'Well, Commander Venus doesn't look like it's really going to happen, why don't you start to do more stuff like this? Give it a name, and we should put together a bunch of these songs and release it.'" Oberst never did come up with an album title (the disc is called A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997) but the project's name, Bright Eyes, came from a complement he pays a girl in one of the songs.
Like all of Oberst's records, his debut was released by Saddle Creek. Oberst's brother Justin started the label (originally called Lumberjack Records) to release Conor's first tape, and by '96, when Nansel and another friend, Mike Mogis, took over, it had become the locus for a new generation of Omaha musicians. "There were a bunch of other bands in Omaha that were playing," explains Nansel. "Not everybody was getting any interest from outside labels, so everybody needed an outlet. The label was started to just put out our friends' stuff. … We started to seek out national distribution, and the bands [that had signed to other labels] started to come back."
Thanks especially to Bright Eyes, The Faint and Cursive, Saddle Creek has had huge success for an indie label. Synonymous with the Omaha music scene, Saddle Creek has been gossiped about, typecast and accused of the same scenesterism for which other indies like Dischord and Matador have sometimes been criticized. But nobody mocks the business plan. Saddle Creek has grown alongside its artists and kept up with each stage of their careers. And it's still run by the same group of friends. (Oberst has a new label affiliated with Saddle Creek, True Love Records, through which he can sign more of his pals.)
With A Collection of Songs, Bright Eyes claimed the moody folk corner of the label. The album featured twenty harshly lo-fi, often-maudlin home recordings, which is a lot of tear-stained spiral notebooks to flip through. But Oberst picked up the pace on 1998's Letting Off the Happiness. He continued the drama of his earlier recordings-especially on the song "Padraic My Prince"—with a made-up a story about his mother drowning his baby brother. But Happiness is also shit-kicking and raw, with songs that lurch from sad waltzes to fierce strumming.
Happiness also marked the first time Oberst recorded with engineer and producer Mogis, who has become his only steady partner in the ever-shifting Bright Eyes lineup. Sometimes called the band's mad scientist, Mogis is affable and, en route to a recording session, talks almost entirely in tangents. He began recording bands with his older brother in middle school, and met Oberst through mutual friends while attending the University of Nebraska. "When I heard these songs on A Collection of Songs," remembers Mogis, "I just thought they were so good. … And I just offered my help. I told him, 'Next time you want to do some recording, just let me know. And I'd like to bring some stuff over to your parents' house and help you. Because I know it can be better.'"
A couple weeks later Oberst took him up on the offer. They cut the tracks for Happiness in their parents' basements, but also at the Athens, Ga., studio of Oberst's friend, Andy LeMaster (currently of Now It's Overhead). The album's sound quality varies but suits the content. "That was the first time I played pedal-steel guitar," recalls Mogis, "and man, I was just all over the place. And Conor's vocals, he was just untamed. … But that's what makes it interesting to listen to."
Happiness was followed by the more polished Fevers & Mirrors in 2000. Though highly dramatic, Fevers maintains its sense of humor: The penultimate track includes a fake radio interview, during which a DJ asks a man posing as Oberst to explain his lyrics' symbolism. ("That was such a dark, really depressing record that, in a way, I was poking fun at myself.") Almost every Bright Eyes record features a tangential or theatrical moment, from the harrowing first track of Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002) which sounds like it's drifting from a car radio, to the 20-minute drone that suspends the last cut of Happiness. With Mogis' help, every album is a sonically challenging experience—though each seems equal parts melodrama and just plain screwing around.
"To me the songs, essentially, are pretty simple folk songs," says Oberst. "The vocal melody, and the lyrics, and the progression either on guitar or piano or whatever, and that's the song. It's very simplified. But what I find interesting is the idea that we can take those songs and just dress them up in a million different ways and really feel like completely free, and actually almost obliged to find a new, weirder outfit to put them in."
All the extremes of the early albums hit their apotheosis on Lifted. Mogis says they started with the idea of making a "grandiose" record. "It was just one random kind of, well, slightly hung-over conversation that we were having in a van while driving from show to show in Europe—I don't even know if [Conor] remembers it—but it was that conversation where we talked about having horns and strings on the record." When they got back to the States, Oberst went to Athens to visit friends and finished writing the record in less than a month.
Mogis says the sessions were influenced by Paul Simon's '80s albums, "but mostly Rhythm of the Saints, because he has the whole Brazilian rhythm corps on there. That was one of the influences in deciding to have five drummers versus one. And then just recording them all live at the same time, just so they're not perfect, so it sounds like a group of people playing together."
They tapped a few dozen friends to sing in the chorus or add strings and brass—from professionals like Cursive's Gretta Cohn on cello to friends who hadn't picked up a trombone since high school band. They even recorded a sing-along in a bar and, as Mogis recalls, "one time we brought a bunch of people over from the bar to the studio, because it's just down the street."
But the music's simply the backdrop for Oberst, who tent-poles the album with soliloquies in which he wrestles with himself and his place in the world. He spits at authority but doubts his own maturity; he dismisses the Bible but borrows its imagery; he demands the right to do whatever he wants, but then the responsibility hits him—like the shame of waking up in a hospital "weak from whiskey and pills" while his father waits by his side. The world's screwed up, and the "cowboy president" lies, but Oberst's not so proud of himself either. And if the speeches go on a little too long, it's only because he's so passionate about getting at some of that truth he just said he doesn't believe in.
Saddle Creek thought Fevers & Mirrors, with 20,000 sold, was Bright Eyes' break-out record, until Lifted launched him into the orbit of festivals, TV appearances and features in Spin and The New York Times. Today, it's Saddle Creek's best-selling album (with The Faint's latest, Wet from Birth, hot on its trail). But, of course, these were both out before the double release of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
After Lifted was finished, Oberst's next set of songs became the material for I'm Wide Awake. "It was originally a reaction to what Lifted turned into," says Oberst. "Granted we wanted that, but it kind of, to me, lacked space. It was very lush and glistened a little bit—it was nice in that way—but I felt like some of the songs were smothered. … I sort of consciously kept [I'm Wide Awake] stripped down, like the '70s folk records that we like a lot. Like an early Jackson Browne record or something."
Oberst wrote edgy lyrics, from the album-opening spoken-word piece about a plane crashing into the ocean to images of hard luck and social conscience in "Sing Sing Sing": "into the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair / we must stare, we must stare, we must stare." But the acoustic sound shimmers, and it doesn't hurt that Emmylou Harris sings on several tracks. "She was amazing," says Oberst. "I mean she's just an angel, and so sweet, so … connected to the earth."
But while he wrote and toured the material, he and Mogis discussed this "sort of drugged-out aesthetic" they wanted to explore, something more rhythmically based than I'm Wide Awake. So Oberst and Mogis began commissioning beats from several producers, and the first single, "Take it Easy (Love Nothing)," was co-produced by The Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello. As they went on, though, Mogis tried his hand at production, and his programming graces most of the album. On "Arc of Time," he says, "I just came up with a basic beat and a basic bass line, but Conor was just going through my computer and opening up sessions that I had on there, to see what I was up to or something, I don't know why exactly. But he opened it up, and he just really liked the beat and he started singing to it. And in a matter of hours he wrote a song to it. … So that's how some of these songs just sort of happened."
While the heavy electronics set Digital Ash apart from Bright Eyes' past records, the biggest difference may be that Oberst put his voice front and center—like on "Devil in the Details," a piano-led set piece that he stalks like a Nebraskan Bowie. "[Conor] became a more focused singer just in general," says Mogis. "He comes up with stronger melodies now. Even during Lifted, when we would do the vocals he'd be changing the melody. … Every time he would do it slightly differently. There's something in that too, where it's still off the cuff. But he's become a little bit more focused in his presentation of words. And that involves also how you sing them."
"My early work was so far from refined," says Oberst. "It was, I don't know, vitriol spewing at whatever was there, and that was fine, but I've been trying to move towards more subtlety and more universal ideas. It's more interesting to me now to be doing that than something more gut-wrenching."
"We definitely have a lot of young fans," he adds. "It made sense when we started out because I was a teenager, so everyone was my age, or older. And now it's like, we still have a lot of young fans, and I don't know. Sometimes it makes me feel weird, like—am I writing this totally adolescent juvenile music or something? But then I think back to the way I was when I was 15, 16, 14, going to shows, and the way I felt about music then, compared to now. I had so much more passion. I was so much more completely… it was just everything to me."
The indie heartthrob will almost certainly expand his audience on the heels of these new records—especially with the Americana leanings of I'm Wide Awake, which is perfectly tailored for AAA-radio. Saddle Creek has national distribution and marketing, and although the label isn't counting on corporate airplay, last October it released two new Oberst singles—"Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)." The first Bright Eyes products in two years, both shot to the top of Billboard's Hot 100 Singles Sales chart, knocking aside Usher and Alicia Keys' "My Boo." The indie rock press watched in shock. Pitchforkmedia.com summed it up with the headline, "Bright Eyes Dominates Billboard Singles Chart: Universe Reveals Plan to Self-Destruct."
Oberst's growing audience and the heated '04 election season gave him more opportunities to speak his mind. Appearing on Craig Kilborn last April, he announced, "This song's for the governor of California and the president of the United States, two men I admire a lot. For their biceps and for their creepy fascist agendas." Then he counted off, "One, two, six six six …" Of course, these days, hating the President doesn't exactly make you a revolutionary.
Oberst doesn't blunt his feelings about George W. Bush, but with other issues his lyrics address, he's still searching for answers. On his 2002 punk album with The Desaparecidos, Read Music Speak Spanish, Oberst blasted the suburban sprawl blighting Omaha and much of the U.S.—the miles of subdivisions served by anonymous chain stores, where people follow a straight career track to identical housing units. Yet Oberst tries not to judge the people who choose this, or any, lifestyle. He doesn't even explicitly reach out to the kids growing up in these subdivisions.
"I would never say, 'You shouldn't live this way,' because I feel like that, in itself, is hypocritical and wrong. But a lot of the way that I write about politics in music, through the songs, isn't necessarily to say, 'Do this, don't do this.' It's more to show the way that these things affect individuals and a person's psyche. If you're talking urban sprawl, and The Desaparecidos record—living in this modern state, this specific suburban life, I think that it's detrimental to the spirit of a person.
"And that sounds maybe condescending or something, and I'm sure there's exceptions. I'm sure there are people living to the fullest. But I think that the way that America is set up now, it marginalizes the individual. You get put into your little demographic and you get sold these products and this entertainment that's specified to what you're supposed to be, and you're never challenged, and you're never asked to live beyond this state where you're giving back to these companies. Giving them money so that you can continue to spin in their little thing they create for you. And I just think that's wrong. I think that being alive and being a human, you should want to be more than a target group."
Oberst's lyrics point at the problems without necessarily offering a solution. But Oberst is OK with not knowing the answers. When the issues dissolve into details, and the alcohol takes hold before the people at the bar have solved the world's dilemmas, a new attitude surfaces. Just like on Lifted, the band gets bigger, the drums stomp and a drunken amateur chorus kicks in. If Oberst wants to affect people through example, he sets it clearly: working with your friends, turning your business to your greater goals, and finding community wherever you land.
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